John Bennett: Linnaeus and the poetics of evolution
Macleay Museum, 21 March 2007 Time: 6.00 for 6.30pm
Good evening. I was described in the Herald’s ad for this event as an eco-philosopher but I see myself primarily as a poet. What is a poet doing in a museum (rather than on the mean streets of Glebe)?
Some thoughts on this are in the free flyer.
What triggered my involvement in this project was seeing a display the photographer Robyn Stacey had prepared around last October at the back here, and thinking why not poetry. A challenge had been set me by a sign I had seen a year earlier for a famous louse (not currently on display):
I quote it in a poem from a sonnet sequence written for this exhibition (on the web site but not displayed). It refers to the albatross in the back case.
The louse and the albatross went to sea
Coleridge immortalised the albatross, the louse still awaits its bard.
Macleay Museum sign Sept 2004.
Ses ailes de géant l'empêchent de marcher. Baudelaire, L'Albatros.
Forster (father and son), naturalists on Cook’s second voyage
hunted penguins and shot a wandering albatross (or two), discovering
two species of lice that fly a thousand miles a day on aerodynamic wings;
the slender one is fixed here to a yellowing preserved slide, the other lost.
The bird has been preening in the land of suspended animation
standing on large tobacco-stained feet sailors once sewed into
baccy pouches. A feather lies loose in its plastic home marked in texta
gigantus, but probably ‘wandering’ from white flecking
on its chocolate wing. When we hear that long-line fishing
risks 19 of 21species a shadow falls (Coleridge felt the shade)
informing reasonable terror (not 9/11). Forster (the son)
a respected scientist, politicised, left Mainz for France,
joined the Jacobin Club, but disowned by family and friends
died alone in Paris within a year. The Terror broke his heart. (1794)
I hope this poem gives you a sense that poetry can work with a wide variety of materials.
In this talk, I want to suggest:
a radical ecological view of ourselves, our minds and our language;
a sense that the beginnings of science were connected to a new attention to nature, which is Linnaeus’ great legacy, and which we need to help us address our contemporary environmental crises; and
a sense of the possibilities of poetry as providing information (among other things).
1. Wunderkammer - Chance, Passion, Imagination
My installation is a kind of poetic Wunderkammer, cabinet of curiosities, ancestor of the museum.
It suggests that Linneaus’ order sprang from disorder in his personal space, which was itself a kind of cabinet of curiosities. From Lisbet Koerner’s description, it sounds wilder than Andy Warhol’s factory - “The walls of his rooms disappeared behind tangled braches – some thirty species of songbirds nested in them . . . Linnaeus pasted botanic prints as wall paper. . . Over the sanded, broad planked floors, he strewed his botanic manuscripts, which blinded nightingales splattered with droppings while racoons played and clawed among them.”1
Feminist theoretician Roberta McGrath suggests reasonably that there is perhaps something anal about collecting activity. She writes, “Collecting, preserving and filing samples in cabinets was a way of controlling and regulating both bodies and knowledge.” 2 However, my installation plays, plays with contingency and association. Linnaeus was mostly dead-egocentrically-serious, but noted: “The botanist who chooses to exercise himself over varieties can hardly come to the end of playfulness of nature in its numerous shapes.” As Jan Westerhoff says of the Wunderkammer, “The arrangement of the genera did not serve to separate all the various areas, instead, it built visual bridges to emphasize the playfulness of nature through the associative powers of sight.”3 The power of poetry I believe lies in its ability to make connections.
A contemporary of Linnaeus, John Pointer defended his Wunderkammer against criticism that such displays were purely for show by, "some of the Ignorant & Illiterate Part of Mankind (that only look upon the Out-sides of Things without examining their real & intrinsic Value)." 4 Like early proponents of the scientific enterprise (e.g. Robert Boyle and Linnaeus) he thought such displays, "lead us to the Great Author of Nature, & not only serve to puzzle the Philosopher, but also to admonish (if not convince) the Atheist."
I mention in the flyer that William Dampier justified his explorations and collecting in similar terms to Pointer. His writings have been read as narrative cabinets of curiosities.5 In A Voyage to New Holland, he wrote, "the Things themselves in the Discovery of which I have been imployed, are most worthy of our diligentest Search and Inquiry; being the various and wonderful Works of God in different Parts of the World.” The odd thing is Dampier, a pirate for twelve years, leaves out the profit motive! Linnaeus was an imperial collector who Lisbet Koerner sees primarily NOT as a taxonomist, but a patriot obsessed with Sweden’s economic self-sufficiency (primarily through Rhubarb and Pearls, the title of my installation).6
In 18th C Paris, there were more than 450 private collections of this sort (collections de diverses curiosités). Nicolas Malebranche, a disciple of Descartes, complained rationally of their creators: “They transform their heads into some kind of furniture storehouses, in which they pile everything on top of everything else without distinction and without order, everything which has some air of erudition . . . They pride themselves on resembling those cabinets of curiosities . . . where the price depends solely on imagination, on passion and on chance.” 7
I would argue that imagination, passion and chance are actually crucial to human existence and experience and of our understanding of how the world works and has come to be.
The word Chance has two distinct meanings:
1. events occurring within a system caused by external factors, e.g. a tree branch falling and killing you does not eliminate the causal factors of wind, termites etc.. We have another word luck for that, traditional societies may talk of spells, spirits, gods and fate.
2. events that are random in nature e.g., the sequence of heads and tails in two-up or the exact position of an electron at any time.
Our interest in Chance is an interest in causality and concern for order. We want an ordered world, we hope for certainty. Some of us are deeply unhappy with the second sense of chance, from the Pope to Einstein, who hated the idea of uncertainty in quantum mechanics and wasted the second half of his life looking for a simple equation to unify relativity and subatomic physics.
However, evolutionary history interweaves both these meanings via random variations through mutation and natural selection. The well worn notion of “the balance of nature” has ‘evolved’ to an emphasis on change and chance.8 Ecologist William Drury writes, ‘To sum up: chance and change are ubiquitous; habitats are heterogeneous; selection drives parents to produce a great excess of young; death (disturbance) is necessary for life; and movements of individuals are pervasive. That’s the way the world is made and works.’ 9
Plato never articulated a ‘theory of mind’, but distrusted emotion (and poetry). In Phaedo, he talked of the soul as chained in the prison of the body, a concept he later developed in Phaedrus. In the Republic he wrote: ‘[The poet] arouses, nourishes, and strengthens this [irrational] part of the soul and so destroys the rational one, in just the same way that someone destroys the better sort of citizens when he strengthens the vicious ones and surrenders the city to them.’10 At least Aristotle disagreed with Plato. He thought Greek tragedy was about embodied passion, about becoming a slightly different person by experiencing a cathartic drama.
Antonio Damasio provides evidence of the inadequacy of Descartes’ (the Cartesian) conception (of mind as separable from the body) He underlines the embodied nature of mind and the interaction between mind, body and the environment - it is an ecological account of cognition. He writes: ‘It is not only the separation between the mind and brain that is mythical: the separation between mind and body is probably just as fictional. The mind is embodied, in the full sense of the term, not just embrained.’11 Passion in the sense of emotions and feelings is not a luxury, but a necessary and vital part of our survival, more so than mathematics or logic. Damasio emphasises that emotion is fundamental to reason.12
Coleridge wrote extensively but confusedly about imagination, but Imagination is nothing mysterious, just a term for important ways human cognition works. There is no need to contrast reason (unfavourably) with imagination, as Shelley did to begin his Defence of Poetry.
Mind is not a structure, but an active integrative process of seeking for, interpreting, and responding to meaning. Signals from the world do not generally represent a coded input, but are potentially ambiguous, and highly context-dependent. To quote Abner Shimony, Any ‘situation is incredibly rich in modalities of scale, senses, cognition and environmental possibilities.’13
The cognitive scientist Mark Johnson argues that both reason & imagination “must be understood ... as an interaction of a human organism with its environment (which includes its language, cultural traditions, values, institutions, and the history of its social community).”14 You and I are ecological creatures making sense of all that happens, sensitively at every moment through imagination.
2. The Mystery of Language
Language helped us evolve. At some stage, hominids stripped speech sounds of their associated meaning and reserved meaning for combinations of sounds strung together, expanding exponentially the range of meaning - this was the revolution of syntax and the use of convention was key. 15
The breakthrough in understanding language came with Johann Gottfried Herder’s Essay on the Origin of Language (1772) and the realisation that language expanded thinking, offering a new reflective stance towards the world – Herder also thought poetry was the origin of language.
Wilhelm von Humboldt utilised Herder’s ideas in his image of language as a productive-expressive act, part of an infinite web.16 And followed Rousseau in viewing humans as fundamentally creative – he wrote: “to enquire and to create – these are the centres around which all human pursuits more or less directly revolve.”17
Archaeologist Steven Mithen notes: ‘Both private and public language act as tools for thought and play a fundamental role in the evolution of consciousness: in the opening up of our minds to ourselves. But during the course of the latter stages of human evolution, another tool was found that may have had even greater consequences for the evolution of consciousness: material culture itself.’18 I would just note that I believe cumulative bricolage to be the key active process, use of tools, objects, and concepts.
A word is a complex thing, as is a concept. Take the word horse – it has various cognitive modalities, emotion (affect), memory, language, imagery etc. We may recognise a horse, store various facts and narratives and images of horses, have feelings and attitudes towards them, and a sense of its category - animal, location (fields), and what they do, run about and eat sugarlumps.19 The word horse allows us to touch the object, smell it, the feel of its nose and hide, its sounds, a sense of its movement; its sound (the word), its spelling, memories of stories of horses and encounters with individuals with personalities. Auditory association areas have stored the sound of the word, and other areas the motor sequences required to pronounce the word.
Then there is the imaginary. Mark Turner points out, ‘the unitary horse we assemble from all of this disparate information is as much a ‘fabulous blend’ as any Pegasus . . . suggesting the ‘literary’ nature of the human mind.’20 He argues that, ‘Meanings are . . . rather complex operations of projection, binding, linking, blending, and integration over multiple spaces . . . meaning is parabolic and literary.’ And there’s an ethical element - Aristotle was on the right track: ‘. . . the excellence of the horse makes a horse both good in itself and good at running and at carrying its rider and at awaiting the attack of the enemy.’
Turner explains, ‘We expect phenomenology to indicate the nature of neurobiology. But it does not. It appears that there may be no anatomical site in the brain where a perception or a concept horse resides, and, even more interestingly, no points where the parts of the perception or concept are anatomically brought together. The horse looks obviously one thing; yet our visual perception of it is entirely fragmented across the brain.’21
Concepts are experiential and embodied. Idealist notions of a Form, or symbol of ‘horseness’, are misguided. Each brain processes language differently (even identical twins), which is evidence against the theory that specific linguistic rules or categories are hardwired and innate.22 Language is ecological, developing as the human organism negotiates the world.
We also have to be able to use the concept of horse in metaphors that are intrinsic to language. Nietzche noted that we are hardly aware that we use metaphors constantly in speech. George Lakoff & Mark Turner demonstrate that our pervasive use of metaphor “is indispensable not only to our imagination but also to our reason.”23 They go further, stating, “Poetry, through metaphor, exercises our minds so that we can extend our normal powers of comprehension beyond the range of the metaphors we are brought up to see the world through.”24
This poem refers to the small jar situated towards the primates.
The jar of liquid fills with light, a hologram takes shape
escaped from a bestiary, skin pale as a unicorn’s stretched
in folds, the dainty muscle definition on the hindquarters
tapers to beautiful forms, sculpted hooves, translucent limits.
The body is squashed to fit, chin resting on front legs crossed.
When I turn the jar, he shakes his head, the nostrils flare,
the eyes almost open. Above the muzzle, two flaps lift as if a horn
might emerge (narwhals’ weighed in gold by medieval quacks).
The umbilical cord floats like the lifeline of an astronaut spinning
into deep space, swimming through ontogeny, life passing before the eyes.
The foetus, gentle and still, is obtained only through extreme means,
but unicorns, fierce and fast, are only caught by cunning.
The best method is for a hunter to lead a young girl to their habitat,
a shady glade, the beasts are spell bound in the presence of a virgin.
3. What’s in a name?
Syntax, rather than naming, is the key mystery of language, but even naming is not as simple as Genesis suggests: “And Adam gave names to all cattle, and to all fowl of the air, and to all the wild beasts.” Epicurus in a letter to Herodotus suggested that names were not given by convention but arose from our nature, that different tribes 'under the impulse of special feelings and special presentations of sense' uttered 'special cries'.25 William Dawes tried to understand the original Sydney language through his friend Patyegarang, but Paul Carter points out that, ‘Words are not Platonic forms. Patye’s speech cannot be idealised, easily generalised or satisfactorily represented by the kind of laconic one-to-one word-list found in Collins or Tench.’
The need for a universal language became apparent with the decline of Latin and vernacular languages were being used for trade, missionary works and colonisation. In 1516, Sir Thomas Moore in “Utopia” described a language used by the Utopians. Just like everything in Utopia, it was based on logic, truth and universality.
The Elizabethan ‘scientist’ John Dee court astrologer to Elizabeth I, and necromancer, performing magical rites to summon the spirits of the dead (considered by the church to be rather dangerous) was as much alchemist (like Newton) and clairvoyant, but also connected with the ‘forward-looking’ movements of the age - Puritanism, trade and the city of London, in this sense he was a precursor of Linneaus.26 In 1564 he wrote his most famous text in contemporary times Monas hieroglyphica, he posits a geometric alphabet with no connection to Hebrew. He though his Monad based on geometry 'would explain the form of the letters, their position and place in the alphabetical order. . .' 27
Francis Bacon intended to invent one language where each word would carry a clear meaning. In De Augmentics Scientarium (1623), he suggests a universal language would compare grammars of different languages in search for the most perfect elements.28
Seth Ward (1617–1689), a professor of astronomy at Oxford elaborated on Descartes’ idea of simple notions. John Wilkins, code breaker in the English civil war, developed this idea. His, An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, (1668), the first linguistic engineering text written, is in my installation. It contains a large ontology, a written and spoken language derived from the ontology, and a dictionary that maps terms in the ontology to English. His world language was based on the division of the universe into forty categories, subdivided into differences, and in turn subdivided into species. His extraordinary classification was meant to advance science and be complete.
In 1648 Wilkins was appointed Warden of Wadham College, Oxford and gathered around him a group of intellectuals, which led to the founding of the Royal Society in 1660, which marks not only as the end of the Interregnum, but as the end of the Renaissance in England.29 1660 marks the adventures of looking out and looking in, it marks a remarkably candid individual Pepys (who owned seven books by John Wilkins) and the restoration of Charles II in 1660 was the end of iconoclasm that had begun with Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. The Royal Society met at Gresham College and dominated the new experimental philosophy. Wilkins put his project o a universal language into practice – using his language to communicate with his friend Robert Boyle. In 1668, Royal Soc set up a committee (incl Wren, Boyle and Hook) to study possible applications of Wilkins’ universal language.
Borges used Wilkins’ odd logic to write an invented Chinese classification which Foucault placed at the head of his Order of Things. Borges concluded any classification is arbitrary and conjectural. Classification functions to simplify the world (and binary dichotomies are the simplest), whereas poetry celebrates its complexity. Umberto Eco points out: “The language of Wilkins failed as a universal language but produced all the new classifications of the natural sciences. The language of Leibniz failed but produced modern formal logic. So, in each failed effort to formulate the perfect language a small inheritance remains.”30
Wilkins “assigned to each category a monosyllable of two letters; to each difference, a consonant; to each species, a vowel: De, means an element; deb, the first of the elements, fire; deba, a part of that element, a flame …” But as Borges notes, “The word salmon does not tell us anything; zana, the corresponding word [in Wilkins’ lexicon], defines (for the man knowing the forty categories and the species of these categories) a scaled river fish, with ruddy meat."
Salmon eggs hatch on a riverbed into alevin and quickly develop into parr camouflaged with vertical stripes, after a year or two they become glittering silvery smolts which swim to brackish water and then to sea. They return to freshwater as juveniles grilse. Eventually most species return to their native streams to spawn, changing from the silvery blue of a fresh run sea fish to a darker colour, deteriorating after spawning into kelts which die. Atlantic salmon look very similar to Pacific salmon, but are actually a trout. Salmonella is a genus of aerobic bacteria pathogenic to humans, named after an American scientist, not a fetid fish. The world is in dynamic process. Hegel used the example of an acorn to show how minute quantitative changes accumulate until an actual qualitative change occurs. An ideal language will always fail.
Yet one reason for it is a desire to efficiently manage information (that used to require thinking, but which Albert Borgmann thinks information has become just another commodity.)31 Jean-Francois Lyotard views a postmodernism as a dissociation of knowledge from the ‘training of minds’. Knowledge becomes information, and, ‘Knowledge ceases to be an end in itself, it loses its use value.’32 Such anxieties are not new. Jonathan Sheehan suggests that they emerged between 1625 and 1735; Richard Yeo from 1735; and Ann Blair traces the problem back to the 13th C!33
4. Attention to nature
One of the earliest nature writers was Pliny the Elder whose curiosity killed him in 79 AD during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and whose work Historia Naturalis formed the basis of scientific authority though a varied mix of facts and fantasies for many centuries34 Early natural histories were herbals or bestiaries. The former helped readers identify medicinal plants, the latter illuminated human nature through real and invented animals. Pictures, of course, were more useful than local names or written descriptions for identifying a flower or herb; but in the middle ages the details in Roman frescos or Persian miniatures gave way to vague Christian conventions, useless for identification. Misinformation was passed on from generation to generation, with a few added mistakes along the way. Early Renaissance artists began to look closely at individual plants. I am thinking of one of my favourite pictures, Durer’s Great Piece of Turf, 1503, Watercolour and gouache on paper, 41 x 32 cm, Vienna. A wonderful composition, looking natural but the dandelions arranged, the grass leaves so fresh, then the bottom tails off into browns, showing the roots. Budding yellow dandelion flowers suggest it was painted in May 1503.
New herbaries began to be produced and as an increasing number of new plants arrived in Europe from explorations, the inadequacy of the old books and names became obvious.35 The very diversity and beauty of nature was cited by the first English naturalist John Ray, a natural theologist, who developed a rival system of taxonomy to Linnaeus, beginning in 1660.36
But in 1500, few Europeans regarded nature as a subject worthy of inquiry. The Dutch humanist Erasmus in his Praise of Folly wrote of natural philosophers. "Theirs is certainly a pleasant form of madness."37 Yet fifty years later Ulisse Aldrovandi a pioneer naturalist founded the first museum of natural history and botanical garden at Bologna, establishing natural history as a legitimate field of study.38
Robert Boyle, as a leading member of the Royal Society (1660), was pivotal in the mid 17th C construction of what Steven Shapin calls, ‘material, social and literary technologies for the conduct of experiments and the production of knowledge.’ He sought to create an impression of ‘virtual witnessing’ by describing experiments in detail and with apparent honesty, though this was on the basis of being a gentleman, rather than within a democracy. In France, the newly emerged salons began a passion for conversation that Harold Nicolson claimed developed new conceptions of ‘reason and ‘nature’, breaking down divisions between aristocracy and intellectuals and gender.39 However, he also advocated observing the ordinary elements of the natural world, in devout contemplation of their wonders. He wrote: ‘I would not confine Occasional Meditation to Divinity itself... but am ready to allow mens thoughts to expatiate much further, and to make of the Objects they contemplate not only a Theological and a Moral, but also a Political, an Oeconomical, or even a Physical use’.40
George Swinnock (‘ejected Minister”) encouraged everyone to undertake personal meditations on the world and if possible write them down: ‘To the Reader. God has given us a large field to walk in, and choice of flowers, pluck what we will, to put into our nosegay.’41
Edward Bury wrote 100 meditations centred on his garden, listing diverse natural phenomena, and encouraged us all: My desire is that thou maist take out this leson, prove an artist, and set up for thy self.42
These were natural theologists who wanted to find God in the world without necessarily sharing St Augustine’s vision of the world laced with vestigia dei (traces and shadows of God) and while avoiding the heresy of pantheism.43 Joseph Priestley, writing a hundred years after Boyle, was still attempting to both standardise science and yet relate it to the visible hand of God.44
Boyle wrote: The world is the great Book.45 Linnaeus seventy years later believed he was ordained to reveal divine law, and claimed to “read nature as any other book”. He was not an empiricist (then fashionable) and had no interest in science or technology. He grounded his claims in revelation. Remember that Newton was a great Bible scholar and spent more time on Natural theology and alchemy, then gravity, light, physics, or calculus put together.
In the following sonnet I note how two scientists can have quite different approaches to their discipline. While Kepler found the snowflake sublime, Robert Hooke (Robert Boyle’s assistant and famous for his work with microscopes) insisted that it was ordinary.
First day with the specimens
What strikes us both is a Willow Ptarmigan, capsised on its side
onto a beady black eye; its feet are furred, no sign of claws,
“The white plumage, full time or seasonal?” I ask, thinking of hares,
then notice the other dozen birds are all on their backs
and none healed with prosthetic eyes. This pretty bird looks well,
head perched on an upright neck, good enough to be a decoy,
and if I look past the barred tail? I see snow sculpting trees
before the sun pulls the rug out from under the icing,
and the bird flying through a blizzard, and Kepler, court astrologer
walking back from the castle, noticing the snowflakes on his coat
were all six-sided, and muttering “in that we say Nature plays”;
whereas Hooke saw, "the most simple and plain operation of Nature".
The bird flies past us all straight into the bank of snow
so as to leave no footprints for hunters to follow.
This poem refers to the male in my wunderkammer, the female is undistinguished and is in the back cabinet. Like Aristotle, Linnaeus grouped mammals by toes and teeth and birds by beak and feet, but in winter the willow ptarmigan’s feet, as I write, ‘are furred, no sign of claws’.
Milton’s description of Eden in Paradise Lost influenced English nature poetry and the Picturesque, in terms of a local pastoral, which observed the local. Milton wrote in ‘L’Allegro’ (1632)
‘Som time walking not unseen
By Hedge-row Elms on Hillocks green . . .
And every shepherd tells his tale
Under the Hawthorn in the dale.
Streit miner eye hath caught new pleasures
Whilst the Lantskip round it measures,
Russet Lawns . . .’46
Both scientists and poets were beginning to pay attention once more to nature. A new naturalistic aesthetics was then introduced by the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1711) 47 (influenced by John Locke), together with Francis Hutcheson (1725),48 and Joseph Addison,49 was becoming popular. Addison returned from a visit to Italy (1701-3), declaring that Italian gardens were passé, and that the natural landscape of the Campagna, as ‘worked upon’ by painters like Claude, should be echoed in English gardens.50 The English word ‘nature’ became wrapped up with paintings, gardens, poems and landscapes.
In my installation, I mention 1771 as a key date when Goethe and Rousseau wrote literary ‘letters’ about nature within a few days of each other. Botanizing increasingly became Rousseau's passion as he grew older, and his encounters with plants brought him peace and contentment. He fled to the island of Saint-Pierre. “I set about doing the Flora petrinsularis and describing all the plants of the Island ... in sufficient detail to occupy myself for the rest of my days.... As a result of this fine project, every morning after breakfast ... I would go off, a magnifying glass in hand and my Systema naturae under my arm, to visit a district of the Island, which I had divided into small squares for this purpose, with the intention of covering them one after the other in each season.”51
Umberto Eco visited San Diego Zoo where the resident grizzly was known as ‘Chester’ not Ursus horribilis. The zoo, known for enclosures designed to ecological verisimilitude, is both a living museum and theme park, an example of scientific ecology and the entertainment industry. Then he asks, “Where does the truth of ecology lie?” Linneaus undertook a hyperrealist project of cataloguing all of God’s creation, and then interfering with it, though postmodernity recently boasted imitation as the sincerest form of reality. Which reminds me of George Shaw's first published scientific description of the platypus, he admitted it was, "impossible not to entertain some doubts as to the genuine nature of the animal."52
The roots of environmentalism lie with the English Romantic poets and painters, as well as, the work of Linnaeus, Gilbert White, Erasmus and Charles Darwin. Attention to nature is a great problem now that we are so urban, and one reason for our list of eco-crises. I see renewed attention to nature in direct descent from these enthusiasms; we are too far removed from our agrarian, let alone nomadic ancestors. Aesthetics, both natural (bushwalks and gardening etc.) and art exploring nature are important for humans to cherish natural environments and processes and life once more.